Trump, ever the reality-TV showman, governs through spectacle. What could be more spectacular than a massive nationwide raid against undocumented immigrants? Set aside the morality or ethics for a moment, as the president regularly does. Sunday’s planned arrests of more than 2,000 families are a pitch-perfect sop to his base as he gears up for reelection. Cable news will buzz for days with footage of immigrants being apprehended and ICE agents banging on doors. It’s the most expensive campaign ad in American history.
Much about Trump’s presidency is new or unprecedented, but rounding up undesired populations at this scale is not; he won’t be the first American president to try to deport immigrants en masse, nor will he be the first to use multistate raids to do the job. What sets Trump apart here isn’t the methods or strategies that he uses, but the lack of long-term policy goals behind them. Thousands of lives are about to change so the president can hear how well he’s doing on Fox News.
The most obvious historical parallel is “Operation Wetback,” the name given to the federal government’s campaign to deport and drive out Mexican immigrants in the border states in 1954 and 1955. Immigration agents combed through the Southwest to round up more than a million Mexican migrants in the region, shipping them over the border by truck, train, and boat without due process. Though it lasted less than a year, the policy marked the start of militarization on the southern border that continues to this day. Trump himself touted the operation as a model for his own approach.
“Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him,” he told the audience at a Republican presidential debate in 2015. “I like Ike, right? The expression. I like Ike. Moved a million and a half illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border. They came back. Moved them again, beyond the border, they came back. Didn’t like it. Moved them way south. They never came back. Dwight Eisenhower. You don’t get nicer, you don’t get friendlier. They moved a million and a half people out. We have no choice.”
Trump’s upcoming raids will fall far short of Operation Wetback. There are an estimated ten and a half million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Tracking down, detaining, and deporting all or most of them is a logistical feat beyond the federal government’s current resources. And while Trump himself said he would remove as many as possible during the 2016 election, his campaign said it would try to deport two to three million instead. The George W. Bush administration, by comparison, deported roughly two million people over his entire presidency, while Barack Obama oversaw the deportation of a record two and a half million.
Even the goal of rounding up 2,000 families is likely unattainable. U.S. immigration officials no longer have the element of surprise, thanks to Trump’s tweets and internal leaks to news outlets; Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday urged House Democrats to inform their undocumented constituents about their right to refuse to allow ICE agents into their homes. And removing those who are detained will still be difficult. Immigration lawyers will try to reopen their cases, stalling deportation while legal proceedings continue. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Thursday in New York asking a federal judge to block the removal of asylum-seeking families until they have received hearings.
None of this should detract from the immense personal impact on those caught up in the raids. While ICE is reportedly targeting recent arrivals to the United States, the agency often also makes “collateral” arrests if agents come across other candidates for deportation along the way. That can include friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even family members. Some could be sent to ICE’s squalid network of family detention centers. The New York Times reported that some ICE agents have “expressed apprehensions” about arresting babies and young children during the upcoming raids. That still probably won’t stop them, orders being orders.
Given the tactical blunders and the limited practical effect these raids will have, why are they happening at all? Part of the strategy appears to be political. After Trump announced the raids last month, he then publicly halted them at the purported request of Pelosi, so lawmakers could make progress on a border-funding bill. The president often justifies his draconian immigration policies by claiming they’re necessary because Democrats in Congress won’t pass new laws or fund his plans for a wall along the nation’s southern border. This rhetorical jujitsu is his way of evading responsibility for the abuses taking place there.
But there may be another strategy at work, too. The Trump administration forecasts its deportation raids not to make them more successful, but to instill fear in disfavored communities and to signal to his supporters that he’s doing just that. Trump constantly strives to slake his base’s unquenchable thirst for harsher policies toward immigrants. I’ve written before on how the border itself, and all the social ills that Trump ascribes to it, acts as a white whale of sorts for his presidency. The Cops-like show drama of the upcoming raids is red meat for Fox News viewers and Breitbart readers alike.
Immigrants in America have been targeted for political sensationalism before. Perhaps the best-known example is the Palmer raids, which took place in the fall of 1919 and the spring of 1920. It was a time of intense political and social unrest. White supremacists had killed dozens of African Americans in race riots throughout the South and Midwest. Labor organizers had led strikes in the coal and steel industries. Business and government leaders, as well as a portion of the American public, feared that anarchist bombings heralded a revolution like the ones in Germany and Russia. A mail bomb even exploded on Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s porch that summer.
Under Palmer’s leadership, the Justice Department launched a massive simultaneous raid on suspected communists in November 1919, sweeping up thousands of alleged members in more than a dozen states. Belief in the communist cause, not participation in any suspected crime, justified the arrests. Though the Justice Department trumpeted the detainees’ political ideology first, their status as immigrants also defined the raids. “This is the first big step to rid the country of these foreign troublemakers,” Palmer’s office told the Times after the first wave of arrests in November.
Palmer’s influence waned after his warnings of a socialist uprising in 1920 never materialized, and Labor Department officials blocked some of the deportations he had sought. The First Red Scare passed into public memory as an object lesson on the consequences of handing over the machinery of government to demagogues. “Government according to Palmer consists in becoming as frantic as ever you can, in mistaking your own tingling nerves for results accomplished, and trying to drown the memory of one failure after another by announcing the inception of the next,” The New Republic opined in an editorial that year.
Trump isn’t actually trying to solve an immigration problem. The president lacks the ability to remove all or most undocumented people in the country, and he lacks the desire to normalize their legal status in any meaningful way. His legislative proposals are too extreme even for members of his own party, while his negotiating tactics are ultimatums at best, hostage-taking at worst. This is all about raw political survival: terrorizing those whom his supporters hate, so that he remains the one they love.